Bonfire Of The Inanities

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Feb 27 2003, 05:30am hrs
As almost anyone who has lived in the United States for any length of time would have witnessed, if not experienced, there are some things about Americans which simply stand out. First, and amazingly true to type, they are very laid-back and relaxed, in fact almost laconic. Their gimme-five sense of locker room conviviality is matched by a serious affliction of optimism. It is a land where many things seem possible, where personal milestones are set and often achieved without the drag of pedigree or history, where new beginnings can and are made all the time. Compared to India, where the most mundane task can be a battle of wits, dignity and resources, American positivity is pure oxygen for the mind.

Second, it is a society committed to personal endeavour and common good, rather than the reverse. There is a constant sense of fair play and public sensitivity towards the underdog, at least among educated and urban population centres on both the coastlines and in large parts of the Midwest. Individual acts of charity abound, with over 70 per cent of American households donating around 2 per cent of their annual incomes. This makes them the largest individual donors in the world, and all without fuss.

Third, and something not adequately appreciated abroad, American irreverence is targeted as much at themselves as at the world; there is a great deal of scepticism, lampooning and roasting, much of it on display on television, stand-up bars and media columns. FDR and Kennedy were exceptions; it is far more difficult to become a perpetual icon-in-history in the US than in other countries. And of course, the American language is bursting with pithy sayings. The rhetoric is homespun but intuitive, and cut-to-the-chase kind of clever. In fact, America has invented a whole genre of sports idioms, one of which is If you must play, decide on three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.

Do you see George Bush heeding that advice Does America appear fun, confident or sensitive to you at this time Does their aggressive stance over Iraq suggest and let us forget principles for a while that homespun intuitions are at work

There have always been two different Americas, one at home and the other abroad. Even the most die-hard critics of American foreign policy over the years, from Vietnam to Chile to Cuba, have remained steadfast admirers of its society. American liberalism has long become an intellectual benchmark across the world, even if only grudgingly acknowledged. In fact, American ideas, initiatives and energy have so successfully pervaded the rest of our world that we often forget that it is America which really invented the concepts and structures of consultancy, think-tanks, cross-cultural studies, town hall meetings and even public accountability. Our Medha Patkars and Arundhati Roys are products of America, in more ways than they realize. Sometimes, if the rest of us have set a higher standard for the US than for other countries, it was a compliment and testament to Americas greatness, not a double standard.

Is this dissonance between the two Americas slowly dissipating An increasingly belligerent spat with Europe, a series of unilateral postures, a dangerous doctrine of pre-emptive war, constricted rights for perfectly legal immigrants and citizens, widespread terror alerts, everyday errors borne out of paranoia by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service, a whole new Department of Homeland Security, and a very atypical you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us attitude.

As radical as they are, what is perhaps even more difficult to fathom is the constant public support behind many of these measures, as also to an Iraq war. No matter how you slice them, almost all recent major polls in the US indicate that the average American supports an invasion, in complete contrast to world opinion. The rabid Fox News channel has now overtaken CNN in viewership. Bellicose insults directed at old Europeans are now commonplace, and whats worse, acceptable.

The change in American public opinion brings back Irving Kristols famous remark that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been mugged. That is what is really worrying, not the chasm between the US administration and the world but between the American public and the rest of us.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors